Winning here? Photo:Getty
Show Hide image

A battle between two fears: who'll win in the Vale of Glamorgan?

Stephen Bush visits the Vale of Glamorgan, which has picked the winner at every election since its creation.

The Vale of Glamorgan doesn’t look like a marginal constituency. Even Barry Island, of Gavin and Stacey fame, is dominated by the big brass door knockers and large terrace houses that, in England, would indicate steady Toryism.

In England, these would be homes bought by bankers or middle managers. But in the Vale, doors open to reveal teachers and public-sector administrators who have been hit hard by stagnant pay and anxiety over job losses. The political figure I hear most about is Michael Gove. “The government has declared war on teachers,” says Mary, who voted for Alun Cairns, the Conservative candidate, when he won in 2010. “We need to get politics out of the classroom.”

It’s small wonder that Cairns’s position doesn’t look as secure as his 4,300 majority would suggest. One Labour strategist talks about being able to “smell blood” in the canvass returns. The central party, meanwhile, is pouring resources into the seat.

But unlike in England, where the rise of Ukip hurts the Conservatives more than Labour, here it appears to be the other way round. In Wales, as one Tory insider says, “Ukip takes our activists but Labour’s voters.” Nigel Farage’s party will come a distant third but it could prevent Labour’s Chris Elmore from overhauling Cairns. One woman on the constituency’s borders says she has “been Labour all my life – and what have I got for it? Nothing. It’ll be Ukip this time.”

What the Conservatives lack in manpower they make up for in money, and the Tory message screams down from every other billboard. “The cost of Labour”, says one, an outstretched hand reaching down to take £3,000 from the unsuspecting citizens of Barry. On the road to Cardiff Airport, one of the constituency’s biggest employers, commuters get a daily dose of Conservativism with their morning drive.

That those same slogans start to come up on the doorstep is therefore little surprise. Alan, who owns a small business, tells me he blames Labour for the economic difficulties of the past five years. “Labour would take us back [to that situation].”

Karen, another teacher, says that she and her husband have “cut down on luxuries... we don’t eat out as much as we used to”. Like most homeowners on Barry Island, Karen has no backstop of capital behind her; when I ask her what worries her most, her reply is immediate: “The mortgage. What happens if one of us gets sick or [given] redundancy?” But when I ask her how she’s voting, she tells me: “I’m voting Conservative. We can’t go back to where we were five years ago.”

Voters here are caught between two fears – a fear of worse to come under the Conservatives, and a fear that the past five years have “all been for nothing”, as Alan puts it. In 2011, with the cuts beginning to bite, his business nearly went bust and he contemplated remortgaging the house to keep himself afloat. “But we’re still here, in one piece,” he smiles. “The economy’s beginning to pick up. I think we should have elections every ten years, let the government get more of a run at it.”

Labour could still win the election on the day. Elmore, who has lived on the island for a decade, is a well-liked local councillor with a strong on-the-ground campaign. Yet in some ways the Vale isn’t quite so different from the leafy Tory strongholds of southern England that it resembles. “I’ve worked hard,” Alan says. “I haven’t been given anything, I’ve never claimed anything. What are Labour doing for me?”

Under Ed Miliband, Labour no longer has a compelling response, no longer exudes what Rafael Behr, the Guardian columnist and former NS political editor, described as “the subtle cadence of reassurance that was once its passport to success”. It may be that Miliband and his party pay a heavy price for that in the Vale.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

This article first appeared in the 01 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Scots are coming!

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Despite his “strong female leads”, Joss Whedon's feminism was never about real women

Many men in TV and film praised for their powerful women are still writing with the male gaze.

Kai Cole, the ex-wife of Joss Whedon, has written an essay alleging that the director isn’t quite the feminist he appears to be. Colour me unsurprised. There’s only so much good-guy posturing a feminist can take before she starts to become a little suspicious.

It’s not that I’ve any particular beef with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, nor that I think men shouldn’t speak out against sexism wherever possible. But I’ve long harboured a mistrust of male directors – Whedon, Woody Allen, Pedro Almodóvar – who gain a reputation of being “good at doing women”. Who are they, these magic woman-whisperers, who see through woman’s childlike, primitive exterior and coax out the inner complexity? How do they manage to present women, these blank, mysterious objects, as actual human beings?

True, these men are working against a backdrop of extreme sexism, in which film dialogue is dominated by males, while females become increasingly silent as they age. Perhaps one should be grateful to anyone who allows a female character to have some glimmer of an inner life, let alone exist beyond the age of 30.

All the same, I can’t help feeling this isn’t enough. We all know the joke about the male feminist who walks into a bar because it’s set so low. It’s all too easy to be “good at doing women” when all it takes is granting female characters the same desires and contradictions we’d grant to any other human being.

Women are not a specific type of puzzle for mankind to solve. The idea that it should take some noble, generous leap of imagination to empathise with us is an excuse men have been using to mistreat us for millennia. When responding to us as though we’re actual human beings – or at least, as though an interesting Real Woman subset of us are – becomes a USP, we should all be worried.

Whedon did go a little way to addressing this in his 2006 acceptance speech for an Equality Now award, in which he mocked the way in which he was constantly asked: “Why do you always write these strong women characters?”:

“Why aren't you asking a hundred other guys why they don't write strong women characters? I believe that what I'm doing should not be remarked upon, let alone honoured.”

If this sounds a little like a humblebrag, it can probably be excused. What’s harder to excuse is this idea that a man who boasts of surrounding himself with women like his mother – “an extraordinary, inspirational, tough, cool, sexy, funny woman” – is doing womankind a favour.

I’m glad you appreciate your mum, Joss, and that you apparently don’t feel threatened by other women like her. There’s a fine line, though, between valuing women and presenting them with a whole new list of impossible standards to live up to. This is why I could never quite buy into the liberatory potential of Buffy. There’s nothing impressive about a man failing to be intimidated by his own strong girl fantasy.

In E T A Hoffmann’s 1816 short story The Sandman, the hero Nathanael falls in love with Olimpia, a doll whom he believes to be a real woman. Once the truth is exposed, the men around him become concerned that they, too, may have unwittingly fallen for automata:

“Many lovers, to be quite convinced that they were not enamoured of wooden dolls, would request their mistresses to sing and dance a little out of time, to embroider and knit, and play with their lapdogs, while listening to reading, etc., and, above all, not merely to listen, but also sometimes to talk, in such a manner as presupposed actual thought and feeling.”

There’s something about the director who’s “good at doing women” that reminds me of this. There’s a recipe for dropping in just the right number of quirks, inconsistencies and imperfections to create a Real Woman Character, without making her so unsexy as to be instantly distinguishable from your Hollywood doll. It’s not that her actual thoughts and feelings matter; it’s all about where she’s positioned in relation to you.

As Sophia McDougall noted in her excellent essay on Strong Female Characters, male characters have complex personalities as a matter of course; female characters, meanwhile, are occasionally permitted to be strong, hence anomalous. The more nuance we see, the better. Even so, I’m tired of the veneration of men who fetishise Real Womanhood just as much as others fetishise the plastic variety.

According to Whedon’s ex-wife, the director’s declared feminist ideals never filtered through into real life. Whether this is true or not, this would be understandable. Real Women are not the same as real women. Equality isn’t a matter of men feeling “engaged and even attracted” to a more diverse range of females. It isn’t about the male gaze at all.

Whedon’s final response to the “why do you always write these strong women characters?” question – “because you’re still asking me that question” – has been seen by many as an explicitly feminist statement. But perhaps all it really meant was “because there’s still a gap in the market”. Because men will always find ways to benefit from other men’s sexism. If Real Women didn’t exist, some man out there would have to invent them. 

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.